Jennipher (age 9) looks after me – offering to clean my shoes, bringing my tea. There’s something to be said for the hierarchy of age that reigns in this part of the world, though when it extends to gender, it’s less appealing (e.g. girls kneel before their elders when greeting or thanking them, in a sign of respect, but boys don’t).
Anyway, one evening, Jennipher takes the rubbish from my room. ‘Now we burn it’, she says, brightly.
Next thing, I find myself crouched on the garbage heap next to our house, along with Jennipher and a few other kids (younger still), all knelt over the match that refuses to light. The plastic bag I’d tied up has been ripped open and a week’s worth of my waste is scattered at our feet: empty water bottles, dirty tissues and, well, personal stuff. I can’t remember now if it’s bad to burn plastic (fumes?), but it sure as hell is a bad idea to stand in a heap of waste picking up bits of used tissues.
So that’s what it comes down to, I thought, as tiny orange flames finally licked their way up in the growing darkness. I must dispose of my remains; no one else will. Like so many things here, you find a way and you deal with it. Waste disposal, sanitation, water supply, health services, education, power supply. Sometimes it’s provided, sometimes not – or at least not affordably so. You find a way to fill the gaps, with pit toilets and matches and gas lamps and jerry cans, with borrowing and buying on credit.
For some reason, of all the crap that people here deal with, it’s the rubbish that bothers me most. Maybe because it’s so visible. Shreds of polythene, flattened water bottles, old bits of tyre, banana peels and maize husks, broken flipflops and used condoms, all of it coloured by now in the same red brown of the earth, and woven into the bumps and troughs of the unpaved roads. A layer of these people’s lives, waiting for the archaeologists of the future.